What Is Sustainable Fashion? A Beginner’s Guide

Sustainable fashion is finally having its moment. Let’s talk about what it really is (and what it’s not) and why it matters.


Once upon a time, a certain fast fashion brand listed a £ 1 bikini and the internet went nuts – mostly in disapproval.

One year later, for Black Friday, another fast fashion brand offered 99% off on some pieces – you could find steals like an £ 0.08 ($ 0.11) dress and a £ 0.25 ($ 0.35) pair of shoes. That was another all-time low for the industry.

Read more: Fast Fashion Facts You Need to Know

When we talk about business, we know that profit comes first.

But I think that at this point most of us know that someone somewhere is paying the price of our clothing hauls with undignified labor and unfair wages. This shouldn’t be a debate, but we’re normalizing a highly dysfunctional situation where the worth of our clothes has somehow become comparable to human life and the well-being of the planet.

Like, imagine rationalising human rights abuse.

We also know that sustainability hasn’t historically been up there on the priority list of business, and if they’re starting to pay attention to it it’s because:

  • most consumers do care, and they’re becoming quite sustainability-savvy
  • legislations on labor rights and climate are about to bite their ass(ets).

So here’s the deal. The fashion industry isn’t going to change out of goodwill, but out of necessity.

But transforming it requires systemic change, and here’s where businesses and the public sector have to work together.

No one should pin the responsibility to clean up the industry exclusively on consumers. Consuming responsibly in a world where things are unsustainable by design is frustrating – almost impossible –, and you shouldn’t have to go out of your way to shop according to basic values.

Sustainability should be embedded into everything, end of the story.

However, systemic change is going to take a while, ya know. Until it happens, we want to give you the tools to make informed decisions about what you buy – hence, this entire blog.


Sustainable fashion 101: all you need to know

What is sustainability?

Sustainability means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (definition given by the United Nations Brundtland Commission in 1987).

This means that, for fashion to be sustainable, both the environment and the rights of all stakeholders involved in the industry have to be respected throughout the entire value chain.

We need to think about stuff like:

  • how garments are designed (following a trend or with timelessness in mind?)
  • which materials are used and how they are sourced
  • how efficiently energy and water are used in factories
  • how much waste the production of each garment creates
  • how the clothes in question can be sustainably discarded

We even have to be conscious about how products are presented to the consumer through honest and transparent marketing – only like this we can avoid greenwashing.

Read more: Major Greenwashing Red Flags and How to Spot Them

Sustainable fashion is ethical, eco-friendly and slow

We use the term sustainable fashion as an umbrella term that includes more specific concepts that can be applied to conscious fashion such as:

  • eco-fashion or eco-friendly fashion, which prioritized the environmental impact of the clothes and the resources their production requires.
  • ethical fashion focuses more on social aspects, including animal and worker rights protection. This also includes respect for the communities that might be affected by different stages of the production process (think about cotton farming communities that shouldn’t be deprived of clean drinking water for the sake of watering crops, or those neighboring textile and dye factories).
  • slow fashion is a whole movement and mindset that focuses on timeless fashion. Its motto: quality over quantity.
  • circular fashion is a system where nothing goes to waste. It leaves a lot of room for innovation in terms of materials and business models.
  • minimalism is all about living with the essentials and rejecting overconsumption.

Having this many options is nice because it lets us address different worries we have about the fast fashion industry and gives us space to decide if we want to prioritize certain aspects of sustainability over others.

For example, I prioritize using non-synthetic materials because I’m very concerned about plastic pollution, so I tend to go for natural textiles like wool and cotton. However, many people buy exclusively vegan clothes, which would leave natural materials like wool out of the equation and possibly introduce synthetic substitutes.

Read more: How Sustainable Are the Most Used Fabrics and Fibers?

Both are valid perspectives on sustainable fashion and choosing one over the other is completely fine as long as we are:

  • making informed decisions about what we buy and why
  • aware that today no form of sustainable fashion is completely fair and clean (refer to what we were discussing earlier about being a responsible consumer in an irresponsible system)
  • focusing on the bigger picture by addressing overarching issues like overconsumption and waste
What is sustainable fashion? Beginner's guide

Eco-friendly fashion: Why is sustainable fashion great for the environment?

1. Reduced environmental impact throughout their entire value chain sustainable fashion environment

Sustainable fashion brands will be completely transparent about how their activity affects the environment.

They will try and reduce their negative impact on the environment as much as possible, and whenever possible they will leave a positive footprint – there’s a difference between doing “less bad” and doing “more good”.

One of the ways they do this is by using only the necessary resources. This includes energy and water, but also raw materials.

A key element is that they’re mindful of their entire value chain – everything that happens from the moment a piece of clothing is designed until you discard it – and find ways to make every step of the way as clean as possible by, for example:

  • applying zero waste pattern-making principles to avoid wasting fabric
  • thinking about the areas surrounding the factories where they produce and making sure they’re not affecting it negatively (for example, by leaking chemicals or affecting local biodiversity)
  • carefully choosing suppliers and partners whose environmental commitments align with their own
  • designing for longevity, but also planning how that dress you’re going to buy can be discarded responsibly at the end of its life

2. Low-impact materials + how, where and by whom they are produced

This is so important. Most modern fast fashion brands will use whichever material is cheaper to cut corners and get a greater profit, and that’s one of the reasons why the clothes they make usually fall apart after a couple of washes.

A sustainable fashion brand will think about three things:

Just as it’s very difficult to have a fully sustainable wardrobe, it is also very difficult to find the perfect eco-friendly fabric.

It’s a misconception that natural fabrics are the most sustainable textiles. Sometimes they’re incredibly water intensive, require loads of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, are animal products or are tinted using environmentally toxic dyes.

However, synthetic materials aren’t a good alternative either because they’re made using fossil fuels. Even leggings made of PET bottles are still made of plastic, even if it’s recycled, which comes with all the issues linked to plastic pollution, like the creation of microplastics.

Thankfully, these two are not the only two options we have, and we can reduce the impact of our wardrobe by buying from brands that apply circularity to the fabrics they use (by upcycling textiles or using deadstock materials) or from businesses that develop innovative low-impact materials (like silk made of citrus or leather made of cactus).

Read more: How Sustainable Are the Most Used Fabrics and Fibers?

3. Minimizing waste before, during and after production

Industrial waste is a huge problem for any business. In the fashion sector, a lot of its waste is made up of fabric scraps, leftover materials or finished clothes with production flaws.

Believe it or not, even clothes that have been flawlessly produced are sometimes incinerated or destroyed if they’re not sold at the end of the season (this has been the case of Burberry in an attempt to avoid devaluation of its brand) or if they’re bought and returned (as many fat fashion brands do, as it’s easier to get rid of the garment instead of putting it back in stock). We talked about it in this Instagram post.

Well, so sustainable fashion brands try their best to minimize their waste by

  • using zero waste pattern-making techniques
  • using deadstock materials or other circular fabrics
  • repairing or discounting flawed clothes instead of throwing them away
  • reusing leftover materials or selling them as scraps to other companies that can use them
  • recycling correctly the fabrics that can’t be saved
  • making sure the quality of the clothes you buy from them is top notch and you won’t need to throw it away in many years to come

Ethical fashion: the human side of sustainable fashion

who made my clothes? fashion revolution

When it comes to the social implications of fashion, sustainable brands will always stand for empowerment, not abuse. 

This involves everything that has to do with how workers are treated: wages, health insurance, safety in the workplace, work stability,…

Usually, when we talk about ethical fashion we think about how the industry affects people. But we can’t forget about animal protection — this is where vegan and cruelty-free fashion come into play.

Ethical brands are expected to follow their values and guidelines to the T. They respect all of their workers and their rights regardless of gender, race, social background, etc.

They know who’s working for them – which is actually pretty rare, as sometimes fashion corporations can’t even point on a map at the countries where their factories are located –, and they make sure every worker along the value chain has great working and living conditions.

This is a way to empower individuals and communities and promote their autonomy by reducing inequalities instead of making them depend on external factors and delocalized factories.

If you haven’t watched the documentary The True Cost yet, leave whatever you’re doing (after you’re done with this post, pls) and go watch it.

It’s a serious eye-opener.

Sometimes we get so caught up in our own lives that we forget that there is someone behind our clothes – who cultivated our cotton, who sewed our shirts,… They´re all part of that other side of the supply chain we don’t get to see when we look at our wardrobe.

You have a choice

You don’t set the rules on how the market works, but you decide who you empower, and what kind of business you want to support and perpetuate.

Look, Economics 101: companies bring to the market what consumers ask for. This change is happening right before our eyes with governments banning single-use plastics or fast-food chains ditching plastic straws.

So, by supporting sustainable brands, you will be contributing to all the goodness they’re doing for the world. With them, you’re not just buying clothes, you’re also taking a stand.

A great place to start would be to try and focus on the quality of your clothes and the value they bring into your life instead of just buying for the sake of buying.

And you can also check this post on how to quit fast fashion or this one on how to tell if a brand is really sustainable, they’re pretty nice too.


Beginner's guide to sustainable fashion

2 thoughts on “What Is Sustainable Fashion? A Beginner’s Guide”

  1. Pingback: The New Fashion Resolutions – The Underlined Blog

  2. Hi Lily, glad to know you and your thought of ethical fashion. Right now I am trying to open my ethical small fashion business in from my house concern in fashion muslim which is right now it is a huhe market yet I think it’s time to change this fashion more sustain. Thus maybe you can help me to collaborate with my brand, it will help so much. Looking forward to hear your response. Thank you and keep inspiring.

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